Written by Mark Gatiss, but I heard him reading this on BBC iPlayer. Part of a series, The Devil in Amber goes into the adventures of an Edwardian artist who turned to espionage.
After portrait painting’s popularity waned thanks to photography, Royal Academy alum Lucifer Box (Good God, the names in this radio drama) went into espionage to maintain financial security. According to him, RA artists often turn to spying because of their experience in the intrigue that occurs frequently in the academies. This does not just happen in art schools, for Box encounters spies from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To keep up the art academy motif, Box’s boss goes by the name of Joshua Reynolds at the Secret Service. A reference to a real portrait painter that ties in with Box’s original vocation. Despite this, Box dislikes him and implies that the name acts as more of a title the same way James Bond’s boss only went by the single letter ‘M’. In the story, Box investigates a secret society called F.A.U.S.T. This reminds me of the cult subplot in the 1987 adaptation of Dragnet. As he goes further into their world, he finds himself involved in trysts, family feuds, murder plots, and otherworldly evil.
Gatiss includes a lot of great art history references with a delightful sense of wit. One example comes from him describing the Chrysler Building in a hilariously Freudian interpretation. Nothing new when describing skyscrapers in that light, but still amusing. Another comes from a touch of Egyptomania with some clever wordplay involving the Ba spirit that connects with the sounds lambs and goats make. By the way, I may have not heard it properly, but I thought he referenced Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, because he mentions about how thankful he did not need to bring a bathtub with him when disguising himself as a French Revolution figure to infiltrate a costume party. In other aspects, Box’s artist training pays off, because I enjoy the way he describes designs and decorations, such as how he examines a handkerchief. In part two, he meets a sea-captain who has a taste for Old Masters such as Diego Velasquez, John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, George Romney, “a Venetian Madonna”, Madonna of the Rocks, and a Peter Paul Rubens woman that he describes as “flabby”. Yes, more people horrified that artists back then found large women worthy of their canvases. Since Gatiss thinks highly of Lucifer Box, the sea-captain has his work among these artists of note.
All in all, a fun little adventure. On Gatiss reading this, I recommend hearing this just so you could enjoy his different voices. Especially his impersonations of Americans and women. In other parts, Gatiss narrates in the droll snobbish way similar to his role as Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock series. I did have one problem with the story. Box’s love interest, Agatha or “Aggie”. Her character exists only to give pleasure to Box or to act as a damsel in distress. While I haven’t seen all the Bond movies and read all of Ian Fleming’s books, I am pretty sure the author and the people who adapted his books gave Bond girls more development than Gatiss did.
Addendum: In all fairness, the story did have many women characters, such as the nuns, Box’s friend (who, I think acted as a bodyguard) and his sister. Beyond the description of her having a burly appearance, I don’t remember a lot about the friend, but I remember his sister moving the plot forward.
I did learn something valuable: If you do not want your minions to betray you by messing up a ritual to bring about a world conquering demon, do not tell them that you consider them worthless while performing the ceremony.
ETA: Rewrote some sentences.
ETA: Added another link and italics.
ETA: Removed a border and tweaked a sentence. I added an addendum because I found myself contemplating my review.